Ready for the Real World: Paying the Bills

 Last week, I described the disappointment (and panic!) I faced when I got to the end of college and realized that there would be no skywriting at graduation telling me what to do next. I’ve since met many, many college grads who, degree in hand, feel a little cheated that they’re going to have to figure out the next step on their own. 

In a season which feels like it ought to have a good dose of serendipity and at least a little bit of magic, may I suggest that  sometimes the best way to make progress on figuring things out is to ask a very mundane question: “How will I pay the bills?”

Here’s why:

First, Scripture sets an expectation that believers will work to meet their own physical needs, so long as they are able. It’s truly healthy and life-giving to get your feet under you and start working to support yourself, whether you’re out on your own or living in your parents’ home. Owning that biblical expectation can serve to get you motivated and moving. 

Second, focusing on getting a job that enables you to meet your financial obligations takes off some of the pressure that many 20-somethings feel to find their dream job immediately. 

The double-edged sword of an education system that constantly reinforces, “You can be anything you want to be,” and the comfort level we’ve developed with our parents’ standard of living gives too many grads the idea — even the expectation — that their first job had better be one in management with a $60K salary that perfectly fits their calling, whatever that means. For most, that’s just not realistic. (Plus, there’s a significant downside to landing that job when you’re 22 and you haven’t earned your stripes through life experience yet.) 

If, instead, the bar is set at, “Find a job that allows me to tithe, eat, have a roof over my head, wear clothes and pay off debt,” you’ll likely find yourself with a wider field of prospective jobs to go after. 

Finally, committing to pursuing a job that pays the bills can be a great way to build a bridge between your education and real-world opportunities in your field.

Though it does happen occasionally, it’s rare to find someone who makes it all the way through a degree program only to discover that they’ve chosen a completely worthless and ill-fitting major. On the other hand, I know lots of people who get to the end of their university days and find that the obvious next step for people in their major leaves them feeling pretty flat (think: education majors who complete student teaching and decide they don’t want to teach). If you find yourself in that spot, of course it’s tempting to scrap your whole plan, but that may not be necessary. 

Rather, think of it this way: If you made it through 125 credit hours of coursework with a modicum of success and even enthusiasm for the subject matter, you’re probably somewhere in the ballpark of what God has made you for and called you to. Now you just need to remember that the obvious next step is hardly ever the only next step. Think outside the box. 

Maybe you have an undergraduate pre-med degree and discover that you’re not really willing to commit eight more years to education before you can practice. I know someone who chose, at that point, to become a biology teacher. It paid the bills, and 21 years later she finds it a very fitting career.

Maybe you chose a major (such as social work or psychology) that makes it very hard to find a professional role without a graduate degree. Consider taking a support role in an organization in your field before or during grad school. It pays the bills. And you might be amazed at how beneficial it is to learn how the profession works from the administrative side. Even if you discover that you’re not gifted for an administrative support role (I did!), you’re likely to be introduced to new job possibilities you didn’t know existed, and that can give you varied and realistic ideas for your next career move. 

What do you think? Does the bill-paying tack on the job hunt feel crass and unromantic? Or freeing and motivating?